Making Co-Design Work: Lessons from Latin America

Participation is a moral and practical good, but long deliberative processes and constant requests for feedback exhaust participants. Here’s how to make co-design work for everyone. (image: stories)

Design with, not for. Design at the margins. Bring more people into the process. These are critical principles to live, work, and design by.

If we want to create a world in which all can thrive, it’s important that we get participation right. We have a long way to go. Our society is not very good at inclusion, at bringing new people into the decision-making process.

If we want to create a world in which all can thrive, it’s important that we get participation right.

Yet this is what is required for justice and equity. It’s also the type of participation we focus on at Do Big Good, a method of creative collaboration called co-design.

And co-design can be tough! Below are lessons in overcoming co-design challenges that we learned while working with our partners at ImpactaLatam.

Regional co-design in Latin America

During the pandemic, Do Big Good began a project in Latin America funded by the National Endowment for Democracy. Our goal was to co-design an impact measurement toolkit that nonprofits could use to assess the efficacy of their democracy, human rights, and governance programs.

Because of the dangers of in-person meetings, the entire co-design process happened online. Over the course of eleven months, fifteen nonprofits from Guatemala to Chile and Uruguay to Venezuela collaborated on Zoom, on WhatsApp, and in Google Docs and Slides.

ImpactaLatam is a network of Latin American democracy, governance, and human rights nonprofits working together to simplify impact evaluation and monitoring.

The co-design process started with interviews and a survey, followed by a virtual co-design workshop in which we collectively surfaced and prioritized the elements they wanted in the toolkit. Following their requests, we created open prototypes of the toolkit for participants to critique and comment on.

When it was time for them to test the toolkit by using it to assess their programs, participants received weekly coaching calls to support their evaluation work and collect ongoing feedback on how well (or poorly) the toolkit was functioning. Over these months, the project gained a name and an identity: ImpactaLatam.

Too much participation? How can that be?!

During the pandemic, I had gone on a co-design binge. I read Designs for the Pluriverse, The Equity-Centered Community Design Field Guide, Design Justice, The Case for Everyday Democracy, and an excellent post on merging design with racial equity work, among others. I felt like our participatory process had become richer, more nuanced, and better informed.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, we had a meeting to assess how the project was going. As our local partners on the leadership team filled out virtual post-its on a Google Slide, one message stood out to me: “Demasiada co-creación” (too much co-creation). Too much? How could that be?!

“Demasiada co-creación” (too much co-creation). Too much? How could that be?!

When something’s not working, we learn from participants themselves. Do Big Good’s design advisor, Kathryn, and I asked our partners how participation had become “too much” and they were happy to explain. Here’s what we learned.

1. Fit co-design into people’s lives, not vice-versa.

Our default going into the project had been to ask the nonprofits for their feedback whenever possible. They knew their own experience best. They were the experts. So of course I wanted them to share what they wanted and needed as often as possible.

Design participatory process around participants’ priorities, needs, and lives. (image: freepik)

But they have lives and responsibilities outside of our (admittedly amazing) project. Julio, the executive director of Red Ciudadana and lead grantee on the project, also noted that not all participatory activities were equally needed. Using participatory methods to design the toolkit document was valuable. But he felt other questions, like asking partners to vote on the project logo, demanded more time than the value it provided.

This doesn’t mean we should have excluded participants from the logo decision. As Kathryn noted, it was a good opportunity to show participants they were part of the organization.

“Imagine you have only one hour a week from a co-design participant,” Julio said. “What would you do with it?”

But it could have been done with more attention to other priorities in their lives. We could have proposed it as an option (“Would you like to help us choose the project’s logo?”) instead of a request (“Please vote on your logo preference by Thursday.”) This would have increased autonomy and the fun that should be intrinsic to a creative process.

Julio put the time choice succinctly. “Imagine you have only one hour a week from a co-design participant,” he said. “What would you do with it?”

2. Ask only for as much feedback as you can analyze and use.

We asked for feedback frequently and we asked for a lot of it. We created the first version of the toolkit in a Google Doc and asked nonprofit partners to leave comments. And they did! Julio guessed there were about 100 comments. More insights! More information! Great!

“What if you had asked the partners to read the whole document and then give only three pieces of feedback?”

Or was it? The project manager, Beatriz, who was in charge of integrating the feedback, found it a bit overwhelming. “What if you had asked the partners to read the whole document and then give only three pieces of feedback?” Julio suggested.

Deciding how much information to collect in a co-design project is a popular topic in qualitative research, Kathryn later confirmed. “It’s such a human inclination to want to capture everything, thinking you will have time to sort through it all.”

“It’s such a human inclination to want to capture everything, thinking you will have time to sort through it all.”

“Maybe this is another way we give power to co-designers,” she continued. “If we’re asking for less from them, then they become more in control of what gets seen. If the partners only got to tell us three things, they would likely be sharing what matters most.”

3. Design the process with the participants.

This lesson might sound like I’m going back on my thesis. Wouldn’t designing the process with participants mean more work for them? Not exactly. If you design the process, you’re designing what participation will look like in the future.

If you design the process, you’re designing what participation will look like in the future.

We had already designed the process with representatives from three Latin American nonprofits. Julio, Beatriz, and partner coordinator Fiorella all work in this world. We co-designed the project proposal with them. They made up the majority of the project team and they took the top leadership positions.

But Fiorella, who works at Asuntos del Sur, suggested that we could have gone further. We could have found a time-limited, efficient way to design the process with the other nonprofits.

Given their interest… given the stipends… given the other demands on their time, when and how did participants want to be involved?

This, she said, would not only have prevented us from asking too much of their time. It also would have given them a view of the whole process and made them feel more engaged in it. Given their interest in the topic, given the stipends they were receiving, given the other demands on their time, when and how did participants want to be involved?

4. Understand that co-design requires new skills.

Finally, Kathryn noted, “remember that allowing people to participate is not the same as empowering them to do so”. Designing with, not for, is new to participants just as it is new to organizations. It requires new skills, new muscles.

You might invite someone to play, but if they’ve never played or don’t know the rules it’s hard to participate. (image: stories)

“[A]llowing people to participate is not the same as empowering them to do so”.

Kathryn offered a basketball analogy. “You might be invited to play basketball,” she says, “but if you’ve never played, or don’t know the rules — have never seen a game — it’s pretty hard to actually participate.”

“It might be that empowering people to be part of the process means bringing them in slowly,” she suggested. There is a theory of learning called communities of practice in which people learn by being peripheral to an activity at first then gradually become more central. “According to this,” she said, “you could become more empowered to play the game by first watching others play.”

“[I]f you’ve never played, or don’t know the rules — have never seen a game — it’s pretty hard to actually participate.”

5. Make the mechanics of co-design clear from the beginning.

Another option is to make the mechanics of co-design explicit from the beginning of a project, to teach the new “rules” of the game. For example:

  1. We’re here to support the process, but you’re the expert. We’ll help you find ways to collect information from other participants, rather than immediately giving you the “right” answer.
  2. Our work together is collecting and synthesizing the wisdom of the group. Sometimes we’ll do data collection by designing a survey, conducting an interview, or facilitating a workshop. However, the results are often better when participants themselves play these research and facilitation roles. We’re here to support and coach you in these new tasks.
  3. Since we’re creating with you, not for you, there will be more work on your side. You won’t just tell us what you need and then we go away and come back with a perfect finished product. We’ll need your ongoing input and availability to use and test what is created.
  4. You get to decide how and how much you participate. At the same time, we understand that you have other work and priorities. Let us know when, how, and how much time you have to participate.
  5. The process itself is also open to adaptation. Co-design has best practices, but they aren’t rules. If something isn’t working, the process itself can change. Just let us know.

As we learned with ImpactaLatam, participation itself is co-designed by those who facilitate the process and those who participate in it.

Mer Joyce is the founder of Do Big Good. You can contact her at Mer AT dobiggood DOT com.

inclusive decision-making // www.dobiggood.com

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